Why International Climate Change Action Will not be Taken

A recent paper published by Chinese climate change researchers and modelling statisticians has claimed that developed nations carry the bulk of the responsibility to reduce carbon emissions. Up until 2005, emissions from the U.S., Europe, Australia and other rich nations have accounted for 60 to 80 per cent of all global warming. Developing nations such as China and India have long contended that today’s global warming is a result of the industrialisation and rapid growth of Western countries, and that they have an ethical responsibility to lead the world in global climate change action.
But as China’s economy surpasses the U.S.’s, so does its total volume of carbon emissions. Per capita wise, Australia is still the highest emitter, a testament perhaps to its fuel-based economy, and relatively small population. Although China’s fast-growing economy pushes the country’s total emissions ever higher, its per capita impact is undermined by its dense population. At the 2010 United Nations Climate Conference held in Cancun, Mexico, it was agreed that China and India would base their pledges on reducing emissions intensity, while other countries expressed their pledge in reaching absolute emissions reduction targets.
Per capita emissions of key economies in 2005 and 2020 (low and high end pledge)

*The low and high end pledge represents countries who pledged to reduce emissions within a certain range.
It can be seen from the graph that while other countries agreed to reduce emissions, China and India will continue to increase their total emissions. China is determined to reach a level of economic prosperity for which they are reluctant to compromise by adhering to certain international climate change agreements; the need for which they believe is a consequence of other countries’ actions. As such, it has only pledged to reduce emissions intensity, which is the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP.
Emissions intensity of key economies in 2005 and 2020 (low and high end pledge)

After the embarrassment of the Copenhagen summit in which ambitious targets were set and neglected, latter international climate change agreements have been modest and noncommittal.
Forged in 2009, the Copenhagen Accord recognised the need for immediate climate change action to prevent global mean temperature increases beyond 2 degrees Celsius. The summit was held to propose a post-Kyoto agreement, however no binding targets were set for developing nations and despite the U.S. having signed the Kyoto protocol, it was never ratified. Other developed nations have often cited the U.S.’s inaction as an excuse to further postpone climate action. Research has shown that even if high-income countries committed to their targets, prospects of avoiding a 2 degrees Celsius increase are extremely low.
An updated version of the Regional Integrated model of Climate change and Economy (RICE-2010) shows the effects on climate change under different policies. The RICE model incorporates climate change into economic growth theory. In standard neoclassical optimal growth models, society invests in capital goods and reduces current consumption so as to increase future consumption. RICE model extends capital investments to include climate investments, called “natural capital”. Concentrations of greenhouse gases are “negative natural capital” and emissions reduction equates to lowering the quantity of negative natural capital. Such reduction efforts lower consumption today, but by preventing economic consequences of climate change, increase consumption possibilities in the future.
Global temperature increases (°C from 1900) under alternative policies

The five different policy scenarios modelled:

  1. Baseline: No climate-change policies are adopted.
  2. Optimal: Climate-change policies maximise economic welfare, with full participation by all nations starting in 2010 and without climatic constraints.
  3. Temperature-limited (Lim T<2): The optimal policies are undertaken subject to a further constraint that global temperature does not exceed 2°C above the 1900 average.
  4. Copenhagen Accord: High-income countries implement deep emissions reductions, with developing countries following in the next 2 to 5 decades.
  5. Copenhagen Accord with only rich countries: High-income countries implement deep reductions as in scenario 4, but developing countries do not participate until the 22nd century.

Under any of the Copenhagen arrangements, global mean temperature is still projected to rise above an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. The hopelessness of the Copenhagen Accord, and difficulty under which the unrealistic target was negotiated, gives future international climate change cooperation a bleak outlook. But regardless of whether a set target is reached, countries must work together for climate change action to be effective. Given that emissions reduction has large costs for the economy in the short-term, and that countries have little incentive to take action where the costs are localised but the goods (being a better environmental outcome) are widely dispersed, no country is willing to take the first step, resulting in stagnation.
Australia, being one of the first countries to introduce a Carbon tax has been commended by international climate change commentators, but within the nation there is a strong belief that we do our economy a disservice by giving our international competitors a trade advantage. This trade advantage would not exist if other countries imposed a carbon tax. Similarly, the EU’s emissions trading scheme, which was extended to enforce purchase of carbon permits for any airline wishing to land their aircraft in the EU, has come under fire for increasing the airfare of certain flights, including non-direct flights where only the EU leg will be taxed. Again, such discrepancies would be eliminated if all countries adopted the same scheme. However, China has banned all airlines in the country from joining the EU ETS, they are forbidden to increase their fares or add new charges for the scheme. Likewise, the U.S. Senate is hoping to pass a bill prohibiting compliance with the EU law. International discord like this reveals each country’s true interests in the climate debate, and makes international cooperation difficult to attain.
–          For a more detailed overview of the Cancun agreements – http://www.climatechange.gov.au/government/international/global-action-facts-and-fiction/international-pledges.aspx
–          A paper presenting the RICE-Model, developed by William Nordhaus, Professor of Economics at Yale University – http://www.pnas.org/content/107/26/11721.full

12 thoughts on “Why International Climate Change Action Will not be Taken”

  1. I think it’s important to point out the assumptions of the arguments made here, which is that climate change scientists know what they are talking about.
    One of the (kind of important) problems in discussing climate change is that there isn’t a consensus that CO2 is the actual driver of global warming, which is what makes it hard to convince people to do something about it.

    • Dear Anon,
      Saying there’s no scientific consensus on climate change is a bit like saying there’s no consensus on the theory of evolution. The actual reason it’s so hard for anything to be done is because the short-term costs (which are about the only thing democratically-elected heads of government care about) far outweigh the long-term benefits, even if it means saving billions of lives. And the fact that there’s no body or organisation which has any clout and is able and willing to compel nations to adhere to a binding agreement on emissions reductions. Throw in politically motivated non-participation from major emitters like India and China and the only way this whole process could go any slower would be if we’re all wrong and the world freezes over instead.

      • Your analogy doesn’t hold because while there’s no consensus on evolution amongst the general populace, but I challenge you to find one biologist who has any serious arguments against evolution. Climate change on the other hand is a much more hotly contested field – which is why governments aren’t obliged to do anything. Why should they spend money on something that may or may not be a hoax?
        Whatever people would have you think I’m fairly sure that the people running China and India are intelligent, and if there was something obvious in preventing climate change they would be acting on it (Nuclear non-proliferation, for example. India isn’t in it because they want to use nukes against Pakistan.)
        Main point remains: analysis is solid, but based on assumption that climate change is credible.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change#Statements_by_dissenting_organizations
          Besides, since when has controversy or dispute ever been legitimate reason for inaction? NATO support for Libyan rebels was controversial as all hell, but they still did it. There was no guarantee that the consequences would be beneficial or would lead towards a democratic government, but they did it anyway.
          Governments can only respond to what is percieved as reality, and the window of opportunity is narrowly closing. By the time we achieve universal consensus on whether or not global warming is occuring, we will literally be neck deep in trouble.

          • Well, I guess the lack of action speaks for itself. What credible action is being taken by any real player in the game?
            This goes back to my original point: no one knows if this is actually going to be an issue or not, which besides the excellent analysis that Alice did is one of the reasons why no one is doing anything about it.
            Heck, I wouldn’t pay someone to tell me that cutting down trees is going to cause the oceans to rise.

      • OJ, I agree that short-term costs outweighing the long-term benefits is the more compelling reason why policy makers aren’t taking any actions. Acting on climate change requires a double level of political maturity – firstly, countries must act on climate change knowing that other countries benefit too and at the expense of their own economy, secondly, current generations must shoulder the costs of abatement for the benefit of future generations.
        Given all the controversy over Australia’s carbon tax, I wouldn’t be surprised if governments prolonged legislating on climate change for the sake of keeping the popular vote.

    • ‘I think it’s important to point out the assumptions of the arguments made here, which is that climate change scientists know what they are talking about.’
      Sure. I wonder the same about Conservative politicians every time they open their mouths.

    • Hi Anon, thanks for the comment, while I agree that climate change is much more contested than evolution, I think there are strong grounds for the existence of global warming. Without turning this too much into a debate on the legitimacy of climate change I would like make the following points:
      Firstly, climate change scientists are nonetheless professionals in the field, and while there may be some sceptics within the profession, the dominate consensus is that global warming does exist. Where there is disagreement is usually in how much the surface temperature of the earth has warmed – this can be explained by the different climate models and different inputs that scientists use. However using a multi-model analysis, which plotted the changes in surface temperature by averaging the plots for various models, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) reported that surface temperature is on the rise, under any of the SRES emission scenarios. Perhaps this means that there is some consensus in the field, however it may not be as well-defined as other scientific areas – although I do believe that the media is responsible for much of the claims of alarmism. To add to the credibility of this graph, I’d like to add that the IPCC represents all nations, and is usually conservative in their predictions of climate change because all their reports must be approved by representative of each country, and that would include those who have a stake in the consequences of climate change policy being adopted.
      As to your claims on whether CO2 is the primary driver, I am inclined to say yes, although that is not to say that other radiative forcings don’t have a significant impact on climate change. Whilst scientists are ambiguous about some causes of global warming (such as cloud albedo feedback i.e. how much do clouds absorb and emit radiation), they are very certain that CO2 has a net positive effect on global warming. Even though other greenhouse gases like methane might be more inert than CO2, CO2 is still the greenhouse gas of highest concentration in our atmosphere, and comprises the largest component of net anthropogenic forcings, again I am citing the IPCC.

      • I think we are getting a bit off topic with regards to the original intent of your article, and at risk of going further on a tangent I will indulge the sceptic within me.
        ‘Global warming’, without a doubt has been happening since the medieval times, but how much of it is man-made? Without going into the specifics of the data that constitutes evidence, it is worth pointing out that the majority of ‘Climate Scientists’, as with anyone with vested interests, are hired to say whoever hired them wants them to say. Which may or may not include the public.
        In fact my real question would be, if it’s as huge of an issue as it potentially is, why does it receive so _little_ attention in the media? You addressed it from a global trade perspective but I mean if half the world’s cities are going to be underwater in my grandchildren’s time then you’d hope someone would do more than the current…apathy. And were we to seriously do something about Co2 (again assuming it’s causality not correlation), putting emission quotas per person? You may as well put a limit on the amount of money people can spend, see how well that goes down. (Not saying it’s your idea of course.)
        My main suspicion is that the clever people in the US government (who managed to put off signing the Kyoto protocol for ages, and then backpedaled out of actually doing anything at Copenhagen) have their own idea as to what’s actually going on, and thus aren’t really inclined to do anything about it. I could be wrong, but I have my suspicions.

        • Thanks Anon, human-induced climate change is a highly politicised issue and as a normal citizen myself I feel like scientific truth is really elusive in this area.
          In my article, I only approached the issue from an ‘economic incentives’ point of view and even then it’s difficult to cover the myriad of reasons why nothing is being done about climate change. Both you and OJ gave good reasons to enrich the argument. First, that climate change may not be true anyway and second, inaction could also be due to a loafing phenomenon whereby countries want other nations to do the heard work.
          America is one of the most skeptical countries when it comes to climate change, and according to a recent poll Americans placed the economy and jobs at the top of what should be government’s priority, while global warming was at the bottom. I can’t rule that their inaction is due to the belief that climate change is a sham.

  2. Hi Alice! Loved the article, but a few things I’d like to add. First, I’d like to point out that China and India are not just pledging to increase their carbon emissions. They’re also setting out limits on how far their economies can expand at the expense of environmental concerns before they can start focusing on the environmental cost of their prolonged industrial and economic growth. When you consider that the Chinese economy needs to grow at 8% GDP just to keep pace with domestic demand, then this is quite a commitment that the Chinese are making.
    You also have to look at this from a political perspective. The traditional Chinese interpretation of agreements which limit its growth has been to view them as Western attempts to prevent China from occupying its rightful place in the current world order, and amongst the influential hard-Left elements of the Chinese Communist Party this view still holds sway. Given that agreements like Kyoto and Copenhagen are invariably general in nature, focused more on nation-wide goals rather than industry-specific, this translates into apprehension on the part of the government with regards to firm commitments. This kind of “we’ll set the target then throw the ball to you” approach is both vague and displays a deep misunderstanding within political circles as to what exactly a 5 tonne per person decrease in CO2 emissions actually translates to economically and industrially. If America’s goal of a 25% cut to CO2 emissions was directly manifested as industrial cuts, the consequences would be far more than just a 25% cut to GDP, to jobs, to government tax revenues. It would begat an economic downturn that would make the Eurozone crisis look like a a few dropped pennies.

    • OJ, thanks for your food for thought! Yes, I believe China is pledging a rather significant commitment given their fast growing economy, however I still think that their attempt to shoulder carbon abatement onto richer nations is a bit immature at a time where current emissions have already thrown the world off-target to achieving what Copenhagen and Kyoto set off to do. Even though wealthier nations have made the world how it is today, China and India continuing to produce at these rates could endanger the earth’s future a lot more than it is endangered today. Although, rationally speaking the effects are very long term, and I wouldn’t have a personal stake in this issue by then, neither would current-day China. Responsibility is therefore what we require most, but I don’t think that will happen.
      And adding onto your second paragraph, China has a very good reason not to act, and that is because the U.S. isn’t doing anything either. Both countries are fairly disappointing regarding to their commitments on climate change policy, and the U.S. having been thought of as a leader for so long, is probably in a very ironical situation. Even though China blames the U.S. for most of today’s global warming, I don’t think the U.S. has much of a right to tell China what to do.


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